Insects that fly are frightening enough, but flying ants might be even scarier. Ants are typically seen crawling on the ground, so it’s shocking when ants with wings start buzzing around. Winged ants become even more imposing when they swarm during mating periods, gathering at specific landmarks in a behavior called ‟hilltopping.” These swarms are an impressive sight to behold, but do you really need to fear them?
WHY ARE THERE FLYING ANTS IN THE FIRST PLACE?
Ants that fly aren’t some kind of genetic mutation. There’s a very good reason they exist. Flying ants, or ‟alates,” as entomologists refer to them, are simply ants that are sexually mature. These are the ‟reproductives” of the colony, created by the ‟queen” and fed by the ‟workers.” The reproductives go through their immature stages developing inside of the colony. When the ant colony is naturally ready to expand, the winged ants get ready to take the stage.
Mature male and female ants fly out of their colonies with one purpose in mind: to mate. This flight is commonly referred to as a ‟nuptial flight” or ‟dispersal.” You might know it by a different name, based on the ants’ tendency to gather in large clusters during this mass exodus: a swarm. Swarming helps keep predators away (strength in numbers), and it’s why ants that fly are commonly referred to as ‟swarmers.”
WHY DO YOU SEE MULTIPLE SWARMS AT THE SAME TIME?
Most ant colonies swarm around the same time each year, like clockwork. This is because certain conditions must exist in order for the winged ants to get the message that it’s time to leave home. These conditions include bright sunlight, low winds, high humidity and warm temperatures, preferably after three to five days of rain. These conditions happen most often in the late spring and early summer. That’s when you’ll see the most ants with wings.
The males and females of all the colonies in your region simultaneously fly out to mate, or at least as close together as possible. This increases their chances of finding a mate, and the successful fertilization of the queens-to-be. The winged ants create mating aggregations (called ‟hilltopping”) around trees, bushes, chimneys, towers, trucks and other large or high structures.
These landmarks are used every year and quite a few onlookers gather to watch these large swarms. ‟Flying Ant Day” is a popular social event for many enthusiasts, though over the past few years, these nuptial flights have taken place over the course of a week or month, instead of one single day.
ARE ANTS WITH WINGS DANGEROUS?
These huge swarms can be a bit intimidating, but the ants have only one thing on their minds: mating. Ants that fly don’t represent any greater danger to you than your typical ant that crawls.
If a species of ant doesn’t bite or sting, the alates of that species won’t bite or sting either. If the ant species bites, like a carpenter ant, the winged carpenter ants can still bite if they feel threatened. If the ant species stings like fire ants do, the winged fire ants can still do the same.
It’s highly unlikely ants will bite or sting you while they’re flying, so don’t run headlong into any mating swarms and you should be fine. Do be careful if they are crawling, just as you would with any other ant.
WHERE DO ALL THE FLYING ANTS GO?
Shortly after mating in these aggregations, the males die – their life’s purpose fulfilled. The fertilized female then flies around searching for a nesting site that meets her standards. Each species of ant has their own nesting preferences, with some choosing decaying wood and others colonizing cracks in the sidewalk.
Unfortunately, this also means they might invade your personal space during their search. If you see a winged ant in your home, contacting a pest management professional is your safest course of action.
When the female finds a suitable nesting site, she will break off her wings and never fly again. The new queen goes to work starting her colony. She uses her now useless flying muscles as a nutrition source. This comes in handy with all of the egg-laying that she’s about to do.
DOES SEEING A SWARM MEAN YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE ANTS?
It’s important to note that the presence of a swarm of flying ants doesn’t necessarily increase the chance that you’ll get ants in your home. Remember, the swarms are leaving their colonies to mate and start new colonies. Roughly half of them (the males) will be dead right after mating. Further, not all flying queens will be able to successfully start a new colony. It’s tough work and requires that everything falls into place for her: location, genetics, lack of predators, weather and even a little bit of luck.
Now, if you see a swarm of flying ants inside of your home, this probably means you have a colony of ants living inside your wall voids, or nearby on your property. For swarms in your home, call a pest management professional immediately.
DIFFERENCES TO NOTE: FLYING ANTS AND TERMITES
One very important point to make is that winged ants are often mistaken for termites. This can result in disastrous property damage if you ignore what you think are ants, and wind up with termites. Here are some quick ways to tell them apart:
If you see flying ants (or termites) in and around your home, make the smart move. Call Terminix® and make your home a no-fly zone.